People might say “food.” They might say “art.” They might say “fashion,” “design,” “wine,” or any number of words associated with an elegant, cultured style of life. They will rarely say “golf.”
Why not? Doesn’t Italy deserve to be known as a destination for lovers of golf as well as lovers of opera? On a recent trip to northern Italy, traveling from Milan to Venice, I decided to find out by sampling five courses. Some were rated among the top dozen or so in the country. Some were simply on the way. The first report was on Bergamo.
Circolo Golf Venezia
After a visitor to Circolo Golf Venezia pays his green fee, he might step into the little pro shop run by Giorgio Gorin. Signor Gorin is an affable guide for visiting golfers, and he will offer to walk the visitor out to the 9th green to pass along some local knowledge.“From 1929, we had 9 holes,” Signor Gorin says as he walks along a graveled path. “In 1955, we got 18. (The architects of record are Ian Cruickshank, Henry Cotton and Marco Cruze.) In 1956, we had the Italian Open. Gary Player was here. He didn’t win. Johnny Miller played here in 1974. He didn’t win, either.”
An oval green comes into view, and Signor Gorin stops. “This is No. 9,” he says. “155 meters. Blind tee shot.” He gestures toward an earthen rampart, perhaps 30 feet high, that bisects the apparent line into No. 9 green. “It’s an old fortification. Don’t hit when the red light is flashing. When you get to the top of the fortress wall, press the button and the light will start flashing. When you finish the hole, press that button over there.” He points to a button on the path to the 10th tee. “The light will stop flashing.” He gestures toward a big pine that grows to the right of the green as the golfer faces it. “Remember this tree. It’s all you will see.”
The old fortification, it turns out, is in play on several holes. The first and tenth tees are built atop it. The 9th crosses it. The approach shot to the 18th green flies parallel to a brick structure built into the earth, though only a badly sliced ball would hit it.
Still, the fortification is a reminder that Circolo Golf Venezia is built on land with a lot of history. The course is at the southern end of a barrier island, Lido di Venezia, that presently is the city’s beach resort. In days gone by, it was Venice’s first line of defense against an attack from the Adriatic Sea. Shakespeare, had he known, might have set a scene or two from Othello on this ground. The Moor was, after all, in charge of defending Venice from the Turks.
Though it’s within a few hundred yards of the sea, Venezia is not a links, and it has no sea views. It is a parkland course, routed through a forest of towering trees. Pheasants and ducks, rather than gulls, gambol across its acreage.
The club has the bones of a good, tight little course, playing about 6,600 yards from the back tees. Particularly on the opening, older nine, the green complexes are imaginative and challenging. There’s a Biarritz-style green on the 3rd hole, with a trough in the middle. The 8th hole, a par five, makes good use of a pond, which has to be carried if a player goes for the green in two; the player seeking the green in three shots has to thread his layup shot between the pond, some trees, and a bunker. Then there’s the 9th, which plays a little bit like No. 4 at Ireland’s Lahinch, also a par three with a blind tee shot of about 170 yards.
On the back side, the trees impinge on play more than classic design would suggest they ought to. The tee shot on the par-three 12th must be a fade. Anything else will catch some limbs. The 16th hole has two pines deliberately placed in the line of play, presumably to add some challenge to a humdrum, 350-yard par four. The tee shot has to go over or around the first tree. The approach has to go over or skirt the second.
The conditioning at Venezia is not what Americans have come to expect. (Whether American expectations are reasonable is another issue.) The greens are bent grass, kept a little slow and shaggy in mid-summer. The fairways are a mix of bent and a scraggly Bermuda. The rough areas are a hodge-podge, and the bunkers are filled with a soft, powdery brown sand. A player generally has a decent lie in the fairways, but the course doesn’t look like a well-kept American parkland golf course. On the other hand, the Venetians probably don’t dump tons of water and fertilizer on their course each year. Maybe they know something Americans ought to learn.
I rated Circolo Golf Venezia a C+. (To read about how I rate golf courses, click here.) Nevertheless, it’s an excellent walking course and a friendly place, one that makes for an excellent break from the cathedrals and canals of Venice.
Lodging: Albergo Quatre Fontane
It’s usually a good sign in the hospitality industry when an establishment occupies space that has been expanded over time. If a restaurant has pushed out of its original storefront to occupy adjacent spaces, it’s certain that people like the food. If a hotel has expanded, it’s a sign that people keep coming back, and telling their friends.That’s the case with Albergo Quatre Fontane, which has an Alpine architecture that looks slightly anomalous in the context of Lido de Venezia, the barrier island that is sits astride the approaches to Venice from the Adriatic. The Albergo’s main building was erected in 1954. An annex was built in 1991.
And it’s easy to see why the hotel needed more rooms to keep up with demand. The Albergo is comfortable and intimate. Its public rooms are decorated with an eclectic mix of modern and ancient art, from primitive religious icons to abstract expressionism. The infrastructure, from the air conditioning to the Wi-Fi connection, works as it is supposed to.
But it’s the service that distinguishes the Albergo. The staff, from the concierge to the bellhops, efficiently responds to any request. Laundry is done impeccably. Restaurant reservations are made. The schedule for the vaporetto, Venice’s water-borne transit system, is deciphered. Ferry reservations are made.
The ferry is key, and it’s why the Albergo is a wise choice for golfing visitors to Venice. No one can bring a car into the center of Venice. There’s no room. But you can take your car by ferry to Lido, which is Venice’s beach resort. And then you can drive to the Circolo Golf Venezia, which is at the extreme southern end of the Lido island. It’s just ten minutes from the Albergo.
That doesn’t mean you’re cut off from the other attractions of La Serenissima if you stay at the Albergo. There’s a vaporetto stop just down the street from the front door. You can be at Piazza San Marco in 20 minutes. You have the best of both worlds. In fact, the Albergo is a good choice even if you’re visiting Venice with no intention of playing golf.
Dining: Vini Da Gigio
Restaurants in Venice can be divided into two classes. There are those that sell views—outdoor tables on a canal or a piazza. And there are those that sell food. Vini Da Gigio is one of the latter.
It’s a tiny spot, wedged into a building near the Canal d’Oro stop on the No. 1 vaporetto line. There’s a canal outside, but no room for sidewalk tables.
Inside, under a low, oak-beamed ceiling, a tiny kitchen turns out estimable dishes. The antipasto verdure is a plate of sautéed eggplant, spinach, asparagus, cauliflower, green beans and zucchini that is sufficient to make even the crankiest four-year-old learn to love his vegetables.
The pasta dishes are the stars of the next course. If you viswit, hope that there’s one sauced with a ragu of rabbit. If the rest of the world truly knew what a good Italian chef can do with rabbit, there would be a new species on the endangered list. It’s that good.
At the end of the evening, there’s a counter that has a wide variety of drinks, from Kentucky Bourbon to 20-year-old grappa. Be careful with the latter, though. It may be explosive.
Off the Course: Venice
Whoever first called Venice “La Serenissima” probably wasn’t standing in the Piazza San Marco on a hot summer’s day in the 21st century. Reports that the city is slowly sinking into its own lagoon are not surprising, given the cumulative weight of the tourists who descend upon it every day.
Indeed, standing on a bridge and looking down at a Venetian canal can be like standing in the lobby of the United Nations during a General Assembly session. The world passes before you in all of its variety, except that in Venice, its peoples are ensconced in gondolas, and they’re listening to an accordion player do a very well practiced riff on “That’s Amore.”
This many tourists, however, can’t be completely wrong. Venice retains enormous charm. Lovers still kiss on graceful bridges. Café orchestras still give free concerts on the Piazza San Marco at night. Venetians race gondolas lit by lanterns, passing under the Pont del’ Accademia as the moon rises over the Chiesa della Salute and the Grand Canal. A person who can’t find something interesting to do with off-the-course hours in Venice probably needs to take a long break from golf.
Back when Titian was in short pants, Venice was famous for its glassmaking, and this tradition continues on the island of Murano. Ask your concierge. He or she will smile happily and arrange for a water taxi to pick you up.
When the boat docks, at least if you’re at the Fornace Vernier, you’ll be met by your personal sales associate. The celebrity photo wall is the sales room will tell you you’re not the first to get this treatment. Jack Lang, the ex-Minister of Culture for France, has been here. So have Paul Newman, Sting, Julia Roberts and Melinda Gates.
First you’ll spend some time on a small grandstand next to a furnace where Venetian craftsmen are creating art from sand. Then you’ll see the showrooms. There’s no pressure, the sales associate will tell you. “Just open your heart,” he’ll say. Buy what you love.
There are thousands of pieces to choose from, ranging from chandeliers dusted with 24-carat gold to glass renderings of portraits by Pablo Picasso. (He visited the place, too.) So you’re very likely to see something you love. If you don’t, they’ll make things to order. There’s free shipping, of course. And the folks at the Fornace are very happy if you pay cash. Italy has a tax system roughly analogous to the wage system in the old Soviet Union, where the workers pretended to work and the state pretended to pay them. In Italy, the state pretends to impose very high taxes, and the people pretend to pay them.
A Diversion: Roncade
On the Internet, it seemed a great idea. Why stay in overcrowded, overpriced Venice when it was possible to stay 20 miles outside Venice in the little town of Roncade, in a real castle, complete with wall and moat? Take the train into Venice in the morning and return in the evening to sip the product of the castle’s vineyard and fall asleep dreaming of knights in shining armor?
The dream collided with reality when we were shown to our room. The Castello di Roncade is indeed a castle, hundreds of years old. The wiring, unfortunately, is almost original equipment. Our room had 25-foot ceilings, impressive-looking paintings on the walls, and a fold-out sofa. The “air conditioner” was trundled in on wheels. It might have cooled a closet when it was manufactured, back in the 1950s. It had no chance against the volume of a castle room. The Wi-Fi service, it turned out, was too weak to penetrate the thick walls. To use the Internet, we had to sit in the entrance hall, where the occasional group of German tourists wandered through, complete with guide and crying children.
We learned that the family that presently owns the castle acquired it around 1930, a time when a lot of properties in Europe were changing hands. At the time, it must have seemed a sound investment. Presently, though, it must be a nightmare. It would require untold millions of euros to modernize the place, to restore the crumbling statuary in the castle keep and replace the portico pillars presently propped up with iron rods.
And then what would you have? A big house with a mosquito problem, due to the moat. The aristocracy business in Europe isn’t what it used to be. We left after one night.
In that lone night, however, we happened upon a marvelous restaurant. Da Galli is a family enterprise on the edge of Roncade. Papa is a waiter. Mama handles the cash register. Son Carlo is the maitre d’. And daughter Monique presides over the kitchen.
Monique is a gifted and creative chef. Her appetizer of smoked eel was paired, improbably, with green apples. Who knew green apples and eel went so well together? The pasta course of papardelle in a duck-based sauce was exquisite. We were not surprised when Papa told us that his daughter sometimes works as a private chef for the Benneton family, up the road in the city of Treviso.
Da Galli made it tempting to spend another night on the fold-out sofa at the Castello. But not tempting enough